You've seen couples who just seem to function with all the smoothness of a Swiss watch - couples who hold and hug, who speak to each other with loving and respectful tones, who work out their differences without fussing and fuming.

What's their secret? These couples - whether they know it or not - habitually use certain responses that nurture the relationship and allow them to talk and share and work out their problems.A number of these responses are actually skills you can learn and use to create good feelings in any relationship.

You'll find in this article two of the most basic skills. As you read on, ask yourself whether you use these two skills to listen and talk to your partner. (In the communications of troubled couples, these skills are usually missing altogether.) If the answer is no, you may be able to bring new vitality and satisfaction to your marriage by adopting fresh communication habits.

Listening - the receiving skill. Listening is the key skill that allows you to understand your partner. When you're truly listening, you pay absolute attention. You enter your partner's world, you try to see things from the inside out. You verbally walk with that person, hold his hand, feel with him - but do nothing to add to or change his perspective. You do not judge. You are simply there.

Anytime you listen carefully to your partner, you give a gift - a verbal back rub, so to speak. And you help that person to bring his thoughts out into the open, to hear those thoughts and to clarify them. Almost magically, as you listen, your partner may rid himself of his own hurts, change his own views, solve his own problems.

To make listening work for you, consider these suggestions:

- Make listening a form of communication that you frequently use to reach out to your partner.

Paraphrase your partner's messages, trying to capture the essence of what he is saying. Use lead-in phrases like "It seems to you . . .," "I sense you're feeling . . .," or "As I hear it, you . . .."

- If you sense feelings - perhaps anger, hurt, disappointment, worry, resentment - put those feelings into words ("You're hurt your friend didn't seem to appreciate your efforts").

- Make it a point to listen anytime your partner is wounded or distressed. (Even when he's distressed with you!) Clear your head and simply prepare to receive what the other person is saying. Give yourself the strong and certain command: "Now hear this!"

- Privately commit yourself to understand (but not necessarily agree with) your partner's feelings or point of view. Say to yourself: "I'm going to leave the problem with him. If he's hurting, I'll listen to the hurt - try to help with it - but not take on the problem. I refuse at this time to advise, attack, judge, blame, lecture or defend myself.

"My task is to understand this person who's hurting."

- Listen until your partner's feelings have dissipated and until you understand what the real problem is. Then - and only then - consider working on solutions to the problem. (Most well-intentioned "listeners" are primed to give advice before a distressed person has finished his first sentence.)

"I" messages - the sending skill. Just as listening helps you understand your partner, "I" messages help you understand yourself. With "I" messages you claim ownership of your feelings, thoughts, needs and wishes:

- I'm disappointed we won't be able to see the game.

- I think I'd prefer a different approach.

- I'd like you to fix this screen.

- I don't want you to speak to me in that tone of voice.

"I" messages stand in contrast to "you messages," which almost always evaluate, blame or criticize others.

- If you hadn't put off buying the tickets, we could have gone to the game.

- You're sure dumb to do things that way.

- Why don't you ever get the screen fixed?

- You're always so negative.

"You" messages obscure your feelings and they also bring out the urge to fight in your partner. To eliminate defensiveness and counterattacks in your relationship, stick with "I" messages. Here are strategies that can help:

- A stirring of feelings inside can alert you to the need for an "I" message. Think for a moment about what you're experiencing and silently try to put your negative or positive feelings into feeling language - "I'm (hurt) (sad) (glad) (happy) (excited) about . . .."

- Take responsibility for how you talk about negative feelings. Hopefully, your intent is not to mow your partner down; it is to explain how you feel. So avoid abrasive responses ("I'm disgusted with you") and sarcastic and hostile voice tones.

- Be specific. Instead of saying, "You never help anymore," say "I'm disappointed because I thought you were going to help me."

- Anytime you give an "I" message that describes heavy feelings ("I felt abandoned at the party and wondered whether you really wanted to be with me"), shift immediately to a listening stance. Be ready to listen - and to understand - the problem your message caused your partner.

- Don't return to another "I" message until you've listened several minutes.